Hope for 3: Marriage, Cancer and Pregnancy

When I first got the text from my friend Emily, I felt an immediate physical sensation of fear mixed with shock—the feeling of an instantaneous cold shower for all the blood in my veins.

The text asked for prayers for a friend of hers who had recently gotten married, recently become pregnant and recently been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This woman—Mary—had inadvertently become the living embodiment of three of my greatest passions in life. Since getting married in 2014, my commitment to my wife has been the defining relationship in my life and something that I take an immense interest in nurturing. Since being diagnosed with Hodgkins and fighting it into remission throughout 2015, supporting cancer patients and sharing my experience as a survivor has become another personal mission. When my daughter was born in August 2016, becoming a father was the final life change to further refine my identity, goals and life purpose.

In a single text asking for my prayers—and without ever having met them or even yet knowing their names—I felt an instant kinship to Mary and her husband Tom and their growing baby Isla Rose. Since the day I learned of their story, they have been on my mind repeatedly and on my lips in prayer unceasingly.

I often talk about what a whirlwind the last three years of my life have been, with a marriage, a new house, a new job, a cancer fight, and a baby. As a firm believer in the axiom that God will never give you more than you can handle, I know this must be a pretty special family. If God, in His infinite wisdom, saw fit to throw them so many curve balls in rapid succession, they must be excellent hitters with a superb coaching staff.

That coaching staff is where the real miracle happens—when you realize that God didn’t give you more than you could handle precisely because He also gave you a strong network of people who will support you through these challenges. My post-cancer goal has been to join the coaching staff of anyone I encounter who is going through something similar.

If you are reading this, chances are that you were on my coaching staff, and I can never thank you enough. But the work isn’t done now that I’m in remission. I’m asking you to please spring back into action and help the Doherty family. There’s no denying they have a tough road ahead of them. Whether financially or spiritually or in another way you might think of, please join me in lifting up this family as they embark on an undeniably difficult journey. Pray for the health of their baby and a safe delivery. Pray that the cancer has not continued to spread within Mary. Pray that the treatment will be a success. Pray that Tom, with the difficult job of simultaneous caretaker to a newborn and a cancer patient, will get the support he needs and have the strength to persevere with a positive attitude. Just generally keep them in your prayers and consider making a donation to their GoFundMe account.

Reading their story makes me feel incredibly blessed for the way mine worked out and for the oodles of love and support I had along the way. Please help me to spread the word about their situation so that they can share my happy ending and recognize the enormous blessings that are ultimately born of suffering.

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Combating My Gratitude Deficit

Why is gratitude so fleeting?

This thought always seems to not-so-coincidentally occur to me around the time of my once-every-four-months oncologist checkups. How sad that it takes the specter of cancer to make me once again realize how truly blessed I am.

The timing of this week’s appointment was particularly compelling, as Lumpy was already back on my mind for a variety of reasons.

First of all, I had just read the story of Amy Krouse Rosenthal, a Chicago area writer who knew she was dying of ovarian cancer and penned a touching love letter to her soon-to-be-widowed husband for Valentine’s Day in the form of an online dating profile for any woman who would be lucky enough to be with him after she had passed. She was diagnosed in September 2015 and died this week at the age of 51. As always, epically sad stories like this one leave me reeling with grateful thoughts about the fact that my Lumpy was the beatable kind. By simply adding “non-” to the beginning of my Hodgkin’s diagnosis, it could have easily gone another way. Why was I chosen to live?

Secondly, I received an email last week from a new health site called Bright Bod that is seeking to interview patients of various cancers and post their answers to experiential questions online as a somewhat crowd-sourced version of Web MD. Always eager to share my cancer experience in any way that would be helpful to Lumpy’s future victims, I jumped at the chance and walked through my cancer fight via a 45-minute Skype interview. (Incidentally, if there are any other cancer patients reading this, I can send you the site’s contact info if you would like to participate…they will pay you for your time!) Going over the timeline and symptoms and side effects of treatment, I realized how infrequently I think about it on a daily basis. Being a cancer survivor will always be a big part of my identity, but my full return to good health more often than not makes it a footnote instead of a headline. What a blessing.

Thirdly, a few weeks ago a friend texted me asking for prayers for a couple who found out they were pregnant…and then found out the mother has Hodgkin’s. I have written many blog posts here and elsewhere chronicling the joys and sorrows of both cancer and pregnancy—but going through both of those medical events simultaneously is simply unfathomable to me. Please stop reading this for a moment and offer a prayer for that couple and their baby. They must be a very special husband and wife to be given such a tremendous trial.

The final reminder that my gratitudinal attitude could use some adjusting came from looking back at one of my own cancer posts. Since Facebook now delivers a daily “This Is Your Life” digest of what I was doing on this day in previous years, I am able to relive the 2015 Lumpy battle as it recedes into the social media version of the history of my life. I wrote this post almost exactly two years ago, as I struggled with neutropenic fever and an unwillingness to endure more chemo treatments that I knew would make me feel even worse. I was reading the comments on the post and saw one from a woman whose blog site was titled “Livingly Dying.” I clicked over to the site and saw that she had indeed passed away on June 10, 2015—less than three months after commenting on my blog. Recent posts were dedicated to memorial services and a charitable event in her honor. The blog lives on as a testament to her more than four-year fight against ovarian cancer. Once again, it becomes impossible not to be extraordinarily grateful for my current situation and rather ashamed of my frequent lack of gratitude.

Now you might say, “Matt, don’t be so hard on yourself.” But why shouldn’t I start every day with a prayer of gratitude that I am still alive? My ability to write this post right now is a product of early detection, modern medicine and the support and prayers of everyone in my life. I am no more worthy of getting to live my life, love my wife and raise my children than any of the countless people who have succumbed to terminal versions of the disease. And neither are you, my cancer-free friend.

But it’s so hard to remember all of this during the day-to-day frustrations of daily life that nevertheless are still moments of a life that we are blessed to continue living! We should live in full and constant thanksgiving for all the awesomeness in our lives, and seek out joy even in the beautifully mundane moments. I’m striving to shed the skin of entitled indifference that starts building up every time I get another all-clear from my doctor. I got that call today. I’m four healthy months closer to total remission and a declaration of “cured.”

But I know the real cure is unmitigated gratitude, and I need to increase my dosage.

Ash Me No More Questions – Thoughts on Ash Wednesday

As the day that kicks off the Catholic Church’s season of fasting and repentance, Ash Wednesday can feel like a pretty somber affair. But I don’t see it that way at all. I love Ash Wednesday. It always fills me with a resounding sense of purpose, mission and ownership of my faith.

img_1864Ash Wednesday forces you to come face-to-face with your faith…by putting a symbol of that faith right on your face. I’ve seen a bit of back-and-forth about the recent trend of posting your #Ashtag image of your ashes on social media. Some people say it contradicts the Ash Wednesday reading about not doing flashy signs of your faith in public so that you can get recognition from your peers. I’ve never quite understood this line of thinking. Sure, perhaps when Jesus was preaching there were religious leaders and others who showcased their pious acts in an effort to prove their status and holiness. There are still many people who do those kinds of things today. But I don’t think Jesus was talking about getting ashes on Ash Wednesday.

If anything, wearing ashes in public these days has become an almost countercultural act that is more isolating than empowering. Any reaction of “Oh, look how holy that guy is!” would be dripping with sarcasm, not respect. In today’s secular world, invading a newsfeed full of polarizing political posts and vapid pop culture nonsense with a photo of your ashes  is more an act of evangelizing than self-aggrandizing.

On Ash Wednesday, your Catholicism is no secret. It could be the one day a year that people in your office or at the store find out that you’re a practicing Catholic. Maybe they’ll ask you about it. Maybe they won’t. But maybe they’ll think about it later, and it will plant a seed that ends up making them go to Mass again for the first time in many Lents. If they’re not religious, maybe it will prompt them to discern some larger questions or at least want to know why so many seemingly sane people are walking around with dirt on their foreheads.

Beyond what your ash might do for someone who sees you wearing it, Lent is perhaps the most powerful liturgical season on a personal level—if you let it be. Much like New Year’s, Lent presents a wonderful opportunity to take stock and rejigger. The priest who gave today’s homily at the Mass I attended said that Lent represents God’s way of interrupting your life. This is a perfect way of thinking about it. Lent should upset the apple cart of your daily routine. It starts by making you wear ashes and turning your fingers black every time you unconsciously rub your forehead. Then you introduce the idea of sacrifice: what can you give up or add to your life for the next 40 days? It’s like taking your car in for a tuneup. Sometimes they change the oil or replace worn out tires. Other times they’re fixing the air conditioning or adding a new stereo. Lent is one of the few times when you can add by subtracting. You can rid yourself of that gunky oil. You can replace that flat tire with one that might be more expensive in the short-term but will ultimately get you better mileage.

And it all starts on Ash Wednesday. The possibilities are endless today. You need to have a realistic plan if you’re going to stick with it for the next 40 days, but you also need to believe that you are up for a true challenge, and that God’s grace is there to help you complete this sacrifice if you offer it up for Him. It’s not a holy diet. It’s an act of sacrifice.

This is my daughter’s first Ash Wednesday, which makes it all the more powerful to me. It is both my greatest responsibility and my greatest joy to pass on my Catholic faith to her. The ashes on my forehead are a reminder of my sinfulness, brokenness and failure—as well as the incredible truth that Jesus overcame the cross to rescue me from all of that darkness and lead me to eternal life. These are the things that I will need to help my children to understand. This is why I wear my ashes. And this is why I think everyone should see them–in the street, in the office or on Instagram.

I pray that you have a thoughtful and faithful Lent that leaves you more open to God’s plan for your life, more willing to share the good news of your faith with others, more aware of how temporary our Earthly lives really are, and more focused on what that means for the time you have left.

Back to The Room Where It Happened

In the epic hip-hop Broadway musical Hamilton, there is a show-stopping number called “The Room Where It Happened,” that details a momentous backroom political deal that had long-lasting results. Over the course of my nearly year-long love affair with Hamilton, the title of the song has slipped into my lexicon to represent (sarcastically or otherwise) places where important things have occurred. Tonight–without sarcasm–I can honestly say that I returned to what is the most significant Room Where It Happened for me.

Tonight marked the first time in nearly four years that I came back to the school auditorium at Saint Mary of the Angels in Chicago. From the outside and the inside, it looks like any other 50-plus-year-old Catholic school facility in the city–certainly not the kind of place where you would expect your life to change.

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But there I was tonight, in the same space where almost exactly four years ago (give or take two months), I met my wife. Four years ago, I was a 29-year-old bachelor showing up for an intermediate swing dancing class with a bunch of Catholic young adults. Looking back, I remember feeling a lot of uncertainty about my life at that point. I was drifting toward my fourth decade with doubts about what exactly I was supposed to be doing with myself. I had a picturesque life–a steady job, a college teaching gig, a nice condo, a great family and friends–but the vocation of marriage and family that I longed for and fully expected to already have achieved by that point would still gnaw at me in my weaker moments. I began to have doubts about what the future would look like.

I trusted in God’s plan for me, but wondered if the blue prints I had drawn for myself didn’t actually match those of the architect. Faced with that conundrum, I guess I decided to sign up for my friend’s swing dancing class and look for pretty girls to date.


Tonight I found myself back in the auditorium and once again surrounded by Catholic young adults, this time for a speaker event sponsored by the Catholic Young Professionals of Chicago. I’m sure I would have attended this event four years ago as well, in search of spiritual wisdom, but also pretty girls to date. Tonight, I came to the event as a 33-year-old married man who is about to become a father for the first time. Consequently, I was able to focus solely on the spiritual wisdom…and that sharpening of my focus was actually one of the points of the speaker’s talk.

If you ever get the chance to hear Jeff Schiefelbein give a speech, make sure you take advantage of the opportunity. He is dynamic and inspiring and wise beyond his 38 years. His passion is contagious and I think I speak for many in the room when I say that his words left me wanting to be a better person and a better Catholic.

The theme that stood out–and played right into the nostalgia of the location for me–was commitment. Jeff posited that when you fully commit yourself to something, it can be a challenge, but ultimately a freeing experience. Based on the ways my life has changed and the commitments I have undertaken in the intervening four years, I couldn’t agree more.

By committing myself to Theresa for the rest of my life–and now bringing a new soul into the world to share in that commitment–I have freed up so much of the energy and attention that I was wasting on meaningless activities like forced relationships, physical and emotional insecurities, fears and doubts. The difficult and permanently binding commitments of marriage and fatherhood have given my life a purpose and fulfilled a vocation that were previously lacking. I am so grateful for the gift of this vocation, and the ways it has challenged me to become closer to being the person I always wanted to be. I know the refining process will continue as Theresa and I prepare to raise our daughter. I know there will be challenges that will sometimes make these commitments difficult to fully keep. But I also know that I have the focus and ambition to keep them–powers of self-mastery that I had not yet realized when I entered that auditorium four years ago.

Jeff’s challenge to the audience tonight was to live a life that honors your commitment to your chosen vocation as well as to your faith…and to live authentically in a way that makes these choices visible to the world. I am well aware of my shortcomings in both of those categories, but I look forward to integrating his advice into my life and helping others that I encounter to understand and respect the commitments I have made, as well as to embrace their own commitments and experience the freedom with which I am now so richly blessed.